Recent statements that we are running concentration camps at our Southern border have sparked explosions on this subject on social media. The conversation born of these statements, however, has been strange—especially amongst liberals. Is it wrong to use this term, they ask? Is using the term concentration camp, as I’ve heard some say, “insensitive” or even “stupid?”
First, from the mile-high view, it isn’t stupid. Even if much of the liberal conversation has devolved into arguments over semantics and base comparisons, at least the subject is back in the news. More articles are being written and shared. More pictures and stories are coming to light. Awareness is being raised, once again, across the country.
If using a hot-button phrase is what it takes to get the spotlight back on the overcrowded, mismanaged, unhygienic, dangerous facilities that our government is using to hold immigrants then, to my mind, all coverage is good coverage.
Second, even though concentration camp may be a hot-button term, it isn’t wrong. Take a look in any dictionary and you’ll see that the glove fits. Liberals and critics who have taken up arms to coddle people’s feelings or piously claim that using the term concentration camp is insensitive, imprecise, or just incorrect, are wrong.
When it comes to usage, this is the right term.
When it comes to human rights, this is the right term.
Do people really think that “concentration camp” is a term that should belong exclusively to Jews? Is that what we get for suffering the Holocaust? To have the term concentration camp? To ourselves? Why would we ever want it?
Concentration camp isn’t a term created by Jews for Jews — It’s a Nazi propaganda term. It was political jargon meant to disguise what was actually going on in Auschwitz and Treblinka (as if all that was happening to people in the camps is that they were being “concentrated”). This is the exact kind of linguistic covering-over we engage in when we insist on calling our slipshod border facilities in Texas “containment centers” or inventing some other ridiculous term meant to trivialize the suffering of people separated from their families and made to sleep on concrete.
Republicans intuitively understand the power of language and good branding, which is why it’s so important to them that we not call these facilities what they are. But liberals, in a misguided attempt to protect the feelings of Jewish people, are arguing for the same thing the Republicans are. It illustrates perfectly what I’ve felt for a long time: If you go far enough left, you end up on the right.
If you want to be truly precise, call the Nazi concentration camps what they were. Death camps. The Nazis weren’t “concentrating” people, they were systematically murdering them. The Japanese-American internment or “work” camps were concentration camps. And so are Trump’s camps at the border.
No one is calling the migrant situation a holocaust, much less the Shoah — it isn’t. Nor is it the Armenian Genocide. Or Cambodia. Or Darfur. But this is America, and our bar should be a lot higher than “NOT THE HOLOCAUST.”
This is a Republican talking point in disguise. Don’t buy into it. Don’t help them make it. Don’t think for a moment that this is about respecting or “not diluting” the suffering of Jewish people — do not be fooled. It’s about diluting the suffering that’s going on right now, to South American migrants, right here in the United States.
Never forget that not so long ago, Jews also made long journeys to The United States in droves. Never forget that there was a crack propaganda machine in place that convinced much of the world that we were the criminals, economic parasites, rapists — We were, in short, the “bad hombres.” Under the Nuremberg laws, Jewish men were not allowed to employ gentile women under 45 in their households or businesses. Why? Because of the Jew’s insatiable sexual appetite. Jewish men were animals. Jews were a contaminant — a drain on an otherwise healthy society and economy, and everything, everything would come right again once they were just gone.
Never forget that it wasn’t just folks in Europe that bought this rhetoric. There was a healthy Nazi party alive at the time right here in America. And most importantly, never forget that many who tried to obtain asylum legally were turned away.
When I first visited the Holocaust memorial museum in Washington DC, I was most struck, of all things, by their motto: “Never again.” I was moved deeply by the words. To me that motto meant something. It meant that my heritage had something to teach the world forever. To me, the phrase meat that our people would serve as the world’s watchmen, to make sure that humanity never goes down that path again — the path of ignorance, of scapegoating, of abuse and horror — to any extent. It never occurred to me that “never again” could refer to only the Jews. To me it meant never again — to any people.
Jews didn’t die by the millions so that we could think, when other peoples suffered, “My suffering was worse than your suffering.” Having this heritage doesn’t mean we should say “We’ve seen worse.” It means we can say we’ve seen this. We recognize other human beings people being treated as less than deserving of human dignity, and we remember what that did to us.
So don’t worry about our feelings about the phrase “concentration camp.” Our feelings will survive. Worry about a real humanitarian crisis going on right now in our county. Women are being raped in custody (as is what happens in any concentration camp). Babies and children will face permanent psychological damage and trauma after undergoing family separation. Children have died in ICE custody for lack of sanitation and medical care. Many children, as a result of systemic incompetence, may never see their parents again.
And no political ideal is worth that.
If you are of Jewish decent, you have relatives who migrated to survive — by any means they could. Your family was likely shattered, broken up, separated by a racist regime built on the worst instincts of human nature —the very same instincts that inform the policy decisions of the Trump administration.
If there are strong and brave people in your family that you’ve heard stories about and wish you could have met, then honor what their suffering taught us:
That people can see you as a thing. To be stripped of rights. To be put in this cage, or that line, or that facility. To be made to sleep dirty and hungry on the floor. To be separated from your family. To have your children taken from you. To be silenced. And all it takes is for the rest of the world to stand by and make excuses.
Say it with me.
These are concentration camps, too.